Thailand’s controversial King Maha Vajiralongkorn celebrated his 67th birthday in distinctive style in Bangkok on July 28 this year.
With his latest spouse – former Thai Airways flight attendant Suthida Tidjai, his fourth wife after three divorces – seated alongside him, both of them on gilded chairs, Vajiralongkorn handed a symbolic offering to a woman crawling on the ground at his feet, anointing her as his official “Noble Royal Consort”.
For the first time since the reign of King Rama VI a century ago, a Thai monarch was officially acknowledging a harem of more than one woman.
Thais were agog at the news, and when the palace released official photographs in August of the new consort – a 34-year-old former nurse called Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, nicknamed “Koi” – so many people tried to view them that the website crashed.
Thais were agog at the news, and when the palace released official photographs last month of the new consort — a 34-year-old former nurse called Sineenat Wongvajirapakdi, nicknamed “Koi” — so many people tried to view them that the website crashed.
For decades, Thais have gossiped incessantly in private about the lurid love life of Vajiralongkorn, who was even described as a “sex maniac” by his own mother Queen Sirikit, according to a recently uncovered document written by former prime minister and privy council chief Sanya Dharmasakti.
The draconian lèse majesté law enforced in the kingdom, which spells decades in jail for even minor perceived criticisms of the monarch, prevents open discussion of the king’s love life within Thailand, but international tabloid newspapers had a field day. The New York Post has memorably described Vajiralongkorn as a “kooky crop-top wearing playboy”.
But the mirth about the king’s latest marital scandal risks obscuring what lies behind it. This was not just another damaging miscalculation by a monarch who can’t keep his impulses under control. On the contrary, it was another deliberate signal from Vajiralongkorn that he intends to reverse a century of Thai history and reign like a traditional absolute monarch from the past.
This was not just another damaging miscalculation by a monarch who can’t keep his impulses under control. On the contrary, it was another deliberate signal from Vajiralongkorn that he intends to reverse a century of Thai history and reign like a traditional absolute monarch from the past.
To understand what is happening in Thailand in 2019, we have to rewind to 1932, when a group of Western-educated bureaucrats and military officers rose up to overthrow the system of absolute monarchy in which royals had wielded total control over the kingdom for centuries.
The reigning monarch, Prajadhipok, King Rama VII, was playing golf at his seaside palace in Hua Hin when he learned that the rebels had seized key locations in Bangkok and detained most of his relatives. He was humiliatingly forced to return to the capital and agree to a new democratic Siam in which the monarchy was bound by a constitution.
But Thai royalists have never accepted the end of absolute monarchy, and even today, the efforts by the palace to restore its political primacy continue to dominate politics in the kingdom, a continual source of conflict and instability.
In 1933 the royalists launched an armed uprising, led by Prince Boworadet and supported by King Prajadhipok, to try to restore royal power. It was defeated. Furious at his loss of status, King Prajadhipok abdicated in 1935, and for a while it seemed as if royal power had finally been defeated in Thailand.
In 1946, the 20-year-old King Ananda Mahidol, Rama VIII, was shot dead by his brother Bhumibol in the Grand Palace in Bangkok, probably by accident. Bhumibol became King Rama IX the same day, but the scandal of his brother’s death hung over his reign and the monarchy appeared doomed.
Thai royalists have never accepted the end of absolute monarchy, and even today, the efforts by the palace to restore its political primacy continue to dominate politics in the kingdom, a continual source of conflict and instability.
The royalists still refused to concede defeat. They formed a toxic alliance with the military to overthrow Thailand’s democratically elected government in 1947, and this was the start of decades of military rule, in which the monarchy was used as a figurehead to legitimise dictatorship.
Slowly, however, King Bhumibol, accumulated power and influence, helped by the CIA which relentlessly promoted the Thai monarchy in the 1960s and 1970s as a strategy to keep communism at bay.
By the 1980s, the palace was once again the most powerful institution in Thailand, wielding power mainly through its proxy Prem Tinsulanonda, a general who was prime minister from 1980 to 1988, and then became head of Bhumibol’s privy council, wielding immense unofficial power from behind the scenes.
In alliance with the military, the palace supported several coups. Just as it seemed that Thailand was finally entering an era of sustainable democracy in the 21st century, royalists rallied to topple Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a 2006 coup, and again to oust his sister Yingluck in 2014.
Although the palace network had reasserted its dominance for decades, they were careful to obscure this fact during the reign of King Bhumibol. He was depicted as a humble constitutional monarch who wielded no power, even though the truth was very different. The royalists took great pains to conceal their influence.
But when Bhumibol died in 2016 and his troublesome son Vajiralonkorn succeeded to the throne, everything changed. Vajiralongkorn saw no reason to hide his power. On the contrary, he wants all Thais to be well aware of it, and he has given several explicit signals to ensure there can be no doubt about it.
The first clear signal was in January 2017, when Vajiralongkorn demanded changes to Thailand’s latest constitution, even after it had been approved in a national referendum, to remove any impediments to royal power. The junta led by dictator Prayut Chan-ocha meekly complied.
In April 2017, a historic plaque in Bangkok’s Royal Plaza commemorating the 1932 revolution that ended the absolute monarchy mysteriously vanished, replaced by a new plaque inscribed with royalist slogans. Although nobody could say so openly in Thailand, there was no doubt who was behind this. It was another signal from Vajiralongkorn that he intended to reverse the events of 1932.
Prince Boworadet, who launched the failed 1933 attempt at the restoration of an absolute monarchy, was recently revealed to have been honoured in the naming of a hall in the recently renovated Royal Thai Army Headquarters museum alongside his co-conspirator Phraya Si Sitthisongkhram.
Meanwhile, the king began a concerted campaign to glorify the era of “Old Siam”, when the kingdom was ruled by absolute monarchs. He sponsored a “winter fair” in Bangkok in which Thais were encouraged to dress up as aristocrats from the past. Several new Thai soap operas also celebrated the Old Siam era. It’s a similar strategy to many nationalist movements around the world — not least the “Make America Great Again” ideology of Donald Trump and the resurgent English nationalism of the Brexit movement in Britain — harking back to a fictionalised glorious past.
Thailand’s monarchy is the richest in the world, controlling assets of at least $60 billion. This uncomfortable fact was routinely denied during Bhumibol’s, with royalists claiming the wealth belonged to the kingdom, not the king. But far from trying to conceal his power, Vajiralongkorn wanted to flaunt it, and in June 2018 the palace announced that the king was taking all the royal billions as part of his personal wealth.
He explicitly intervened in the elections in March this year to scupper Thaksin’s latest effort to regain power. Thaksin hatched a plan in which Vajiralongkorn’s elder sister Ubolratana Mahidol would be a prime ministerial candidate for one of his proxy parties, but the king stepped in to shut it down as soon as it was announced, breaking the convention that the monarch should not explicitly intervene in politics.
After a rigged election, Prayut retained the job of prime minister, although he is little more than a figurehead and follows Vajiralongkorn’s orders. In July, when Prayut and his new cabinet were sworn in, they changed the wording of the oath they were supposed to recite. Instead of swearing to uphold the constitution, as required, they instead swore to loyally serve Vajiralongkorn forever.
Thailand’s supine media have described this as a “gaffe” or “mistake”, but it was nothing of the sort. The cabinet were ordered by Vajiralongkorn to swear loyalty only to him, not to the constitution. This was made clear when, with a political storm escalating, the king sent a public message of support to the government telling them to be true to the oath they swore. Like the removal of the plaque in Royal Plaza, it was a public signal that the king does not regard himself as bound by the constitution, and wants to reverse the political changes of 1932.
Vajiralongkorn has also ensured he is in full control of the Thai military, promoting ultraroyalist loyalists to all senior positions. He is creating a special King’s Guard force that answers only to him, and which is being garrisoned in Bangkok while other units are sent to the provinces. Last month, in an unexplained emergency decree that circumvented normal channels, the 1st and 11th Infantry regiments were taken over by the Royal Guard. It means the king has a personal fighting force, based in Bangkok, that can oppose any attempt to challenge his rule.
This is the context in which to understand Vajiralongkorn’s public acknowledgement of his royal harem. The king has always had numerous lovers – as noted in excruciating detail in leaked US embassy cables published by WikiLeaks – and Thais have long been well aware of it.
By resurrecting the old title of Royal Noble Consort, and very publicly broadcasting his polygamous lifestyle, the king is once again making clear that he regards himself as an old-style absolute monarch who can do whatever he pleases.
But by resurrecting the old title of Royal Noble Consort, and very publicly broadcasting his polygamous lifestyle, the king is once again making clear that he regards himself as an old-style absolute monarch who can do whatever he pleases. His great-grandfather Chulalongkorn, King Rama V, had 153 wives and concubines, and after consolidating his authority had total power over the kingdom. Vajiralongkorn sees himself as part of the same tradition.
Two decades into the 21st century, Thailand is ruled by an authoritarian monarch who wants to turn back the clock more than a century. His antics are causing mounting disquiet, but few Thais are willing to speak out. Like North Korea, Thailand has become an international anomaly, a kingdom of make believe with a ruling regime that reigns by clinging to an imagined past.
But living in the past is not a sustainable strategy. The regime may manage to hang on to power for a few years, or even a decade, but sooner or later Vajiralongkorn and Thailand’s royalists will have to face a reckoning with reality, and the long struggle for democracy since 1932 will finally – and belatedly – be won.